Today’s is the final of three posts looking at the media, data and elections. This time, Russia is the topic.
First, it’s hard to know if last week’s election numbers are solid. The western press writes of election fraud. Some problems are admitted. Other reports say all was well. Yet we have the numbers we have, mapped in this post by Knight News Challenge winner Aaron Presnall and his nonpartisan Jefferson Institute, so let’s take a look.
President Vladimir Putin’s victory was substantial – but here’s an interesting point: the data seem to say that his results were related to Internet penetration levels. Here are two rather extreme examples: In the North Caucasian Federal District, Internet penetration is a low 34 percent and the pro-Putin vote was a high 83.1 percent; In Moscow, Internet penetration is strong at 64 percent and Putin is weak at 47.3 percent.
I’m not arguing that the Internet by itself caused Putin’s lower total in Moscow. It was one of several factors. Elections are complex. You have candidates, issues, process, existence of or lack of peace and prosperity and the general mindset of the people.
But information flows matter, too. The Russian government controls national television. On Monday, NPR featured a good election conversation talking about how 75 percent of what was on TV was Putin-focused. The folks far from Moscow with low Internet access are getting a less diverse story than the ones in the capital with a lot of access. Add to that the fact that a key opposition leader is a blogger. You can see that there likely was wider debate, greater choice, in a sense, where there was Internet access.
Even more interesting is a look at the anti-Putin vote. The three districts where the reformer, Mikhail Prokhorov, did well (Moscow, St. Petersburg and the North Western Federal District), are also the three regions with the highest internet penetration. Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist candidate, did the worst in the place with the highest internet penetration.
A Voice of America story claims cyberspace has pierced Putin’s mystique: “…thanks to the Internet, his challenge will be to rule a people who are more skeptical, and more informed than ever before.” That’s a little too certain, if you ask me. As I say above, there are a lot of factors in play.
Does all this mean Putin will be tempted to crack down on the internet? I think so. He is not a fan of digital media. Before social media, he had millions of additional supporters. Now, his party may be moving to the right. The government already has the power, without a court order, to shut down websites not acting in the “public interest.”
But will Putin actually crack down on the Internet? I hope not. Even though Russia’s president didn’t do as well in Internet-rich areas, Putin still won. True democracy is messy. Putin’s showing in Moscow looks more like a credible election battle than the domination of providences watching government-dominated national television.
By Eric Newton, senior adviser to the President at Knight Foundation